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When and Where to Get Care for Your Child  

When your child complains of a sore throat, stomachache, or headache, you worry. You want to do whatever you can to help your child feel better quickly. Sometimes, you call your child's healthcare provider for advice and sometimes you call for an appointment. Other times your child may need immediate medical attention. But how do you know when you should care for your child at home and when you should call or take them in? Of course, if you are not sure, it is always OK to call or seek emergency services. 

A child’s age helps to figure out when to see the healthcare provider. For example, a fever at a certain level may be reason to see the healthcare provider for a baby, but not for an older child. Follow these tips for generally healthy babies and children:

For newborns and young babies: When to call and where to get medical care

Newborns and young babies are different when it comes to illness or injury. For babies 3 months and younger, anything abnormal needs to be checked out right away. For more information, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics.

For children: When to call and where to get medical care

These guidelines are for generally healthy children. Always follow your provider's instruction. If you aren't sure when to call or where to take your child for medical care, follow this guide from the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Call 911 if your child:

  • Is unconscious or unresponsive

  • Is choking

  • Has severe difficulty breathing

  • Has an injury to the neck or spine

  • Is not breathing or is turning blue

  • Has bleeding that can’t be stopped

  • Has a severe burn

  • Has a head injury and has passed out, thrown up, or is not behaving normally

  • Has possible poisoning (call your nearest poison control center first)

  • Has chest pain

  • Has hives on the face and trouble breathing

Go to the emergency room if your child:

  • Is having mild trouble breathing

  • Is passing out or fainting

  • Has a seizure that lasts 3-5 minutes or more

  • Has a severe allergic reaction with swelling and mild trouble breathing

  • Has a high fever with a headache and a stiff neck

  • Is a newborn and has a fever (see Fever and children, below)

  • Is suddenly hard to wake up or is confused when you wake them up

  • Is suddenly not able to speak, see, walk, or move

  • Has a deep wound or heavy bleeding

  • Has been bitten by an animal or snake

  • Has smoke inhalation

  • Has nearly drowned

  • Has a serious burn

  • Is coughing or throwing up blood

  • Has a broken bone, especially if the bone is pushing through the skin

  • Has numbness, tingling or weakness in a body part near an injured bone

  • Has an unusual or bad headache, especially with confusion, blurred vision, trouble walking, stiff neck, fever, vomiting or a rash

  • Has had vomiting or diarrhea followed by signs of severe dehydration

  • Has fallen from a significant height and is injured

  • Has a widespread rash that covers the body with small red or purple spots, especially with a fever

  • Is experiencing mental health concerns, such as a desire to harm themselves or others

Call your child’s provider for:

  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea that you’re concerned about

  • Coughs, colds, and sore throats

  • Bladder or urinary tract symptoms, such as painful urination or blood in the urine

  • Minor cuts, bumps, scrapes, or burns

  • Ear pain

  • Sinus pain

  • Skin problems

  • Joint sprains or muscle strains

  • A fever (see Fever and children, below)

  • Any concerning behavioral changes

Remember to always follow your parenting instinct. If you feel something's wrong, you are probably right and should call your child's healthcare provider or seek immediate medical attention.

Always call poison control at 1-800-222-1222 for any substances that have been swallowed or inhaled. Keep this number saved in your cell phone or posted near your home phone.

Your child's provider may have different advice based on your child's health history. Always follow their instructions first.

Fever and children

Use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Don’t use a mercury thermometer. There are different kinds and uses of digital thermometers. They include:

  • Rectal. For children younger than 3 years, a rectal temperature is the most accurate.

  • Forehead (temporal). This works for children age 3 months and older. If a child under 3 months old has signs of illness, this can be used for a first pass. The provider may want to confirm with a rectal temperature.

  • Ear (tympanic). Ear temperatures are accurate after 6 months of age, but not before.

  • Armpit (axillary). This is the least reliable but may be used for a first pass to check a child of any age with signs of illness. The provider may want to confirm with a rectal temperature.

  • Mouth (oral). Don’t use a thermometer in your child’s mouth until they are at least 4 years old.

Use a rectal thermometer with care. Follow the product maker’s directions for correct use. Insert it gently. Label it and make sure it’s not used in the mouth. It may pass on germs from the stool. If you don’t feel OK using a rectal thermometer, ask the healthcare provider what type to use instead. When you talk with any healthcare provider about your child’s fever, tell them which type you used.

Below is when to call the healthcare provider if your child has a fever. Your child’s healthcare provider may give you different numbers. Follow their instructions.

When to call a healthcare provider about your child’s fever

For a baby under 3 months old:

  • First, ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead: 100.4°F (38°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 99°F (37.2°C) or higher

  • A fever of ___________as advised by the provider

For a child age 3 months to 36 months (3 years):

  • Rectal or forehead: 102°F (38.9°C) or higher

  • Ear (only for use over age 6 months): 102°F (38.9°C) or higher

  • A fever of ___________ as advised by the provider

In these cases:

  • Armpit temperature of 103°F (39.4°C) or higher in a child of any age

  • Temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher in a child of any age

  • A fever of ___________ as advised by the provider

Online Medical Reviewer: Dan Brennan MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.